Many people will celebrate the grand opening of the Catherine H. Barber Memorial Homeless Shelter at its new location on Saturday, but not the zoning police in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina.
They did everything they could to block the expansion, which they saw as a threat to a vague concept they call neighborhood “harmony.” Zoning officials in other parts of nation use alternate phrases like neighborhood “stability,” “desirability” and “character.” These are all code words, which function as euphemisms to justify exclusionary zoning laws to keep certain people out.
The goal is to preserve the status quo, which appeals to people who happen to fit the approved mold. They mourn the loss of harmony portrayed in fictional places like Mayberry, North Carolina, the archetypal small town from Andy Griffith’s classic television show. Mayberry had no violent crime, no food insecurity, and no problems with homelessness.
North Wilkesboro, less than 50 miles from the real-world inspiration for the series, is not so lucky. Like many communities, some of its residents are in dire financial straits. But generous people banded together to provide a safety net. For more than 30 years, the Barber Shelter has provided beds, warm meals, and help accessing services. But community needs outpaced the number of beds, forcing a search for alternatives.
An opportunity came in 2019 when a retiring dentist and his wife donated their building on a one-third acre lot in a highway business district. The site was ideal. It was centrally located, close to bus routes, and large enough to accommodate up to 20 beds.
From the town’s perspective, the shelter offered a private solution to a public problem. Donors, volunteers, and staff keep the facility running, not taxpayers.
The Board of Adjustment agreed the shelter satisfied all zoning requirements. But when the shelter applied for a conditional-use permit, the town said no. Besides the potential loss of “harmony,” board members cited hypothetical concerns about traffic and safety.
The shelter responded with a constitutional lawsuit in federal court. Our public interest law firm, the Institute for Justice, represented the shelter and helped it score a legal victory on Dec. 20, 2021.
“The Board apparently believes — incorrectly — that it can say the magic words ‘traffic and safety’ and this Court will rubber stamp the classification no matter the facts,” the judge wrote.
The shelter has operated at a temporary location above Crossfire United Methodist Church outside North Wilkesboro while renovating its new permanent home at the former dentist’s office. The preparations are now set for a party, four years in the making. Even the local library has joined in, creating a children’s learning center in the shelter’s lobby.
The zoning police can do nothing at this point except watch. Yet other battles remain. Policymakers from coast to coast talk about affordable housing and poverty as if they care, but then turn around and punish people who try to help.
Officers actually arrested grandmother Norma Thornton for serving meals to the homeless at a public park in Bullhead City, Arizona. Regulators blocked Kathy Hay from sharing food with her neighbors using a publicly accessible pantry behind her home in Asotin County, Washington. And the zoning police stopped a charity from building tiny homes on its own land in Calhoun, Georgia, because the city did not want to attract “riff raff.”
Similar stories have unfolded in Idaho, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Utah and elsewhere. Not even disabled baby goats are safe. The zoning police recently cracked down on an animal shelter that Kimberly Dunckel and her family operate on their farm in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Anyone who does not conform to Town Hall preferences is at risk. Elected officials have authority to regulate land use, which the federal court in the Barber Shelter case recognized. “But such deference cannot be an excuse for the Court to abdicate its duty to protect the constitutional rights of all people,” the judge held.
Put simply, families have a right to seek shelter. And individuals with resources have a right to assist. If zoning officials want to interfere, they need good reasons. And if they don’t have any, they should get out of the way and let people connect.
The grand opening on Saturday shows the innovation that can result.
Diana Simpson is an attorney and Daryl James is a writer at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va.